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Bratton and Hahn Pull No Punches

The police chief and mayor berate council members for rejecting the LAPD expansion plan. Resentful lawmakers cry foul.

May 17, 2003|Jessica Garrison and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles politics broke out of its doldrums this week with an old-fashioned rumble.

Mayor James K. Hahn and his New York import, Police Chief William J. Bratton, charged the City Council with leaving citizens vulnerable to thugs, terrorists and gangsters. The council's threatened rejection of the mayor's budget -- which includes money to hire 320 additional officers and reorganize the department -- would be like turning back Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower on D-day, Bratton said this week.

In a 48-hour media blitz the chief said the council members were "missing in action," accused them of disregarding public safety and warned that they might be clearing the way for Osama bin Laden.

"It's got to be the most insulting thing anyone can say," said Councilman Nick Pacheco, chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee, which decided Wednesday that Los Angeles could not afford Bratton's plan to revamp the Police Department. "If anyone is missing in action for solutions ... it's the mayor's office and the chief.... To call us missing in action is really not appropriate."

For the city's popular police chief -- now seven months on the job -- the battle over money for expanding and remaking his force may prove his most bruising yet.

Even those sympathetic to Bratton are irritated with his take-no-prisoners rhetoric and critical of the insults he has broadcast over TV and radio and in the newspaper.

The harsh words began when the council budget committee rejected Hahn's proposed 2003-04 city budget in a 4-1 vote. The committee voted to put off new spending increases for at least six months, worried that the expenses could jeopardize the city's financial health.

Bratton said he was incredulous at the action. He said the council's defiance of the mayor would eviscerate the progress he has made since being sworn in last fall. He called it inconceivable that the council would "literally want to kneecap" the department just as it was moving forward.

On Friday, Hahn and Bratton called a news conference at Parker Center, the LAPD's headquarters downtown. Flanked by uniformed officers, they had sharp words for the council.

"We have put together a comprehensive reorganization of this department that is underway," Bratton said. "And now all of a sudden to put up a big stop sign and to say to the department and the residents of this city, 'Sorry, why don't you wait eight months to go after the gangs? Why don't you wait eight months go after the terrorists? Why don't you wait eight months to get these cops badly needed reinforcements?'

"I'm sorry, that argument just doesn't cut it," he said. "What are they thinking over there?"

After a week in which Bratton likened himself to Eisenhower and raised the specter of terrorists running amok in an ill-prepared Los Angeles, some local politicians said they had heard enough.

"He seems to have some difficulty in restraining himself," said Mark Ridley-Thomas, who recently left the City Council to serve in the state Assembly. Ridley Thomas was one of the 14 council members to vote for Bratton's appointment.

Now, he said, "I doubt that the council will listen to anyone who speaks in those terms, nor should they. After all, Bratton is an appointed public servant."

Councilman Jack Weiss, who called himself "one of Bill Bratton's strongest allies," said he wanted to "continue to do everything I can to help him succeed in his extraordinarily challenging job.

"It would be helpful, in turn, to have rhetoric turned down a couple notches so we can focus on the unpleasant but all-too-real facts of life: This city faces severe budgetary challenges," Weiss said.

Bratton, who admitted that he is more accustomed to a confrontational style, said Friday that he makes no apologies for his words and he intends no ill will.

"I see this from a positive angle," he said in an interview with The Times at Parker Center. "It allowed me to really make a strong case for what we're doing, why we need to do it. It has rallied the department significantly in the sense the cops see me out there fighting for them. The community sees me out there fighting for them. I don't see any negatives here."

For some, Bratton's highly visible role on the political front has conjured up bad memories from the past, when former police chiefs answered to no one.

William H. Parker, for whom police headquarters is named, commanded such respect he "simply dictated the budget to the City Council," said Raphael Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton.

When former Mayor Norris Poulson questioned Parker about the budget, Sonenshein said, the chief would reply: It's none of your business.

In this reform-conscious era, it is tough to imagine a spectacle comparable to the one in the early 1990s, when former LAPD Chief Daryl F. Gates and Mayor Tom Bradley weren't even speaking, political analysts said.

Yet Bratton may be playing his role with too much zeal, according to council members, scholars and public officials.

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